A border state engagement

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The Confederates were defeated at Mill Springs, Kentucky, which helped Union forces hold onto eastern Kentucky. Western Kentucky was a different story. The Tennessee and Cumberland rivers flowed through the region and into Ohio. Two Rebel forts, Fort Henry on the Tennessee and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland, blocked Union access up those rivers. General Ulysses S. Grant changed this. Grant, who was under Halleck's command, managed to capture both Fort Henry and Fort Donelson by mid-February. Although General Johnston was not present at either fort, the commanders he had installed at both were.

Following the twin defeats at Fort Donelson and Fort Henry, Johnston pulled his forces out of their positions in Kentucky and sent them southward, across the width of Tennessee, to Corinth, Mississippi. This was territory where Union forces were not as plentiful or menacing. His 27,000 men were soon reinforced by order of President Davis with troops sent from New Orleans and Pensacola, Florida. This increased the size of his field forces to about 42,000. All this maneuvering took place with General Grant unable to lift a military finger. Considering Grant's success in the field, it was ironic that his superior, General Halleck, became jealous and was determined to take command of Grant's forces himself. Temporarily, he removed Grant from command. Halleck had already profited from Grant's successes, taking credit for them and receiving a promotion to commander of all Union forces west of the Appalachian Mountains.

Halleck's next step was well planned. He returned Grant to field command and sent him to Pittsburgh Landing on the Tennessee River, about 20 miles (30 km) outside Corinth, to catch up with Johnston. Grant obediently led his Army of the Tennessee to Pittsburg Landing, a march that took about a month. They arrived at Pittsburg Landing on April 3. Grant was to stay there until he was reinforced by General Don Carlos Buell's 35,000-man force. Once the two armies were massed as one, General Halleck intended to join them, take command, and lead the Federals against Johnston's army at Corinth. But Halleck, of course, had not discussed this with Confederate general Johnston, who had no intention of waiting until Grant and Buell massed their men into a single force. Johnston determined to attack Grant before Buell had an opportunity to reach his Union colleague.

THE approach OF BATTLE

Thanks to reinforcements, Grant's forces were counted at 42,000 men before the battle opened on April 6. They were spread among six divisions, five of which were encamped at Pittsburg Landing and the sixth about 6 miles (10 km) away at Crump's Landing. Some of Grant's men were struggling with illnesses, including dysentery, brought by the wet spring weather. As Rebel scouts delivered more reports of Northern troop movements and the approach of Buell toward Grant, General Johnston decided he must moveā€”and quickly. But heavy spring rains slowed his march out of Corinth, and the attack was postponed to the following day.

By the evening of April 5, several of the officers under Johnston's command, among them General P.G.T. Beauregard, pleaded with him to call off the attack. They were certain their approach had been detected due to its slow pace. Beauregard was particularly concerned that, as noted by historian James McPherson, "the noise made by rebel soldiers firing off their guns to see if rain-dampened powder still worked had eliminated all chance of surprise." (However, since Union men were firing off their guns for the same reason, it is unlikely Grant's men would have realized they were hearing Confederate firing.) If Union forces knew the Confederates were coming, they would be already settled in and ready for a fight. Some Confederate officers were also concerned that Buell had already arrived to reinforce Grant. (Although a few of Buell's men had reached Grant already, the vast majority of them had not.) But Johnston would not hear of it. He was determined to meet Grant at Pittsburgh Landing. Historian James McDonough recalls Johnston's words: "I would fight them if they were a million. . . . Gentlemen, we shall attack at daylight tomorrow."

Johnston's lack of concern worked out well for his side. The Federals, in fact, had no idea the Confederates were approaching. General William Tecumseh Sherman, Grant's senior officer, received information about Rebel troop movements, but he did

William Tecumseh Sherman Kentucky

After General Ulysses S. Grant heroically led his troops through Kentucky, he was ordered to bring his men to Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, to await reinforcements before embarking on another campaign. Confederate forces, however, planned a successful surprise attack and initiated the Battle of Shiloh (above) and the fight for control in Tennessee.

not believe they were headed toward the Federal encampment. Instead, he was certain the Rebels would remain in Corinth and wait until the Union forces came to them. When a Union colonel speculated to Sherman that the woods in front of him could be crawling with thousands of Confederates, the gruff Union commander turned angrily on him, as noted by historian John K. Duke: "Beauregard is not such a fool as to leave his base of operations and attack us in ours." Sherman was wrong, and so was Grant, who also did not suspect the approach of Johnston's forces. When the battle began, Grant's men were not in defensive positions at all. Rather, they were scattered around the Tennessee hills in little camps that they had established to be close to water and available firewood.


Just before dawn on April 6, a clear, beautiful Sunday, Johnston sent three of his six corps of Confederate troops along a line facing the enemy, telling his staff officers, as noted by historian Geoffrey Ward: "Tonight we will water our horses in the Tennessee River." Before anyone could change the field arrangement, the fighting began. It appears that, although Sherman and Grant had ignored claims that Rebel forces were close, other Union commanders had not. One of those regimental commanders, General Benjamin M. Prentiss, an Illinoisan who had fought in the Mexican-American War, had nervously sent out a patrol to scout for Confederates. They quickly crashed into the Rebel line and the battle was on.

Thousands of Confederates rushed out of the wooded area around the Shiloh church on the morning of April 6. The landscape was difficult, rugged, uneven, and covered with woods. Five of Grant's divisions were scattered across the slopes along the river, and his sixth, under the command of General Lew Wallace, was away from what would become the field of battle, at

Crump's Landing. None of Grant's forces had dug into trenches and gotten ready, since the Union commander had thought only of offensive moves.

The Rebels slammed into two inexperienced divisions, those of Sherman and General Grant. Sherman's forces, encamped near a small Methodist log church called Shiloh, were taking their breakfast and hurriedly reached for their muskets. Historian Geoffrey Ward notes the response of a Union private named Stilwell as the attack opened: "As I rose from the comfortable log from behind which a bunch of us had been firing, I saw men in gray and brown clothes, running through the camp on our right, and I saw something else, too . . . a gaudy sort of thing with red bars . . . a Rebel flag."

As noted by McPherson, a surprised Sherman shouted: "My God, we're attacked!" Next to him, his orderly was shot and killed. But the Union general recovered quickly and remained collected through the next 12 hours of fighting. He moved on horseback along his lines, ordering his green troops to fill gaps and even counterattack. The daring Sherman had three horses shot out from under him that day and was slightly wounded twice. Prentiss's forces held their ground, too, until the other three divisions on the scene reinforced them.

As for Grant, he, too, had been sitting down for breakfast when the air was shattered by rifle and cannon barrages. He was also nowhere near the battle, but instead was 9 miles (15 km) downriver at his headquarters waiting for Buell's arrival. Immediately, he took a dispatch boat upriver to Pittsburg Landing, reaching the fight around 9:00 a.m. Before him, the whole country was at war on a scale that had not yet taken place between North and South.


Johnston's original plan of attack had been to hit the Union left side with a fury, push it back into the Union center, and then force Grant to retreat into a narrow pocket of swampy ground. But heavy Union resistance made that impossible. It was no help to Johnston, as well, when Confederates fell out of their ranks to ransack abandoned enemy encampments for food and other goods. Such actions by many Confederates caused a general disorganization within Southern ranks.

On both sides, thousands of young soldiers, taking in their first taste of combat, were terrorized by it. Between the two armies, four out of five soldiers had never seen a fight before, much less one of the scale that this battle would become. Many on both sides fled the field, leaving commanders to try and fill the gaps in their lines and reorganize their brigades. By the end of the day, 5,000 Union soldiers had retreated back to the Tennessee River and were huddled underneath a bluff.

Grant moved along his lines, taking counsel with all his divisional commanders throughout the day and ordering new lines of resistance and the movement of artillery units all along the ridgeline west of Pittsburg Landing. Johnston, too, put himself in the thick of the fight, moving down to the front lines along the Confederate right to bolster his men and drive them forward. An especially volatile portion of the line developed at a site later called the Hornet's Nest. It lay along the center of the battle lines, where Union men from Illinois and Iowa were situated, positioned along thickets by a sunken road. Twelve times, Confederates troops assaulted the Hornet's Nest, and each time they were pushed back.

Then, at mid-afternoon, Johnston was seriously wounded as he led a charge against Union positions in a peach orchard to the left of the sunken road. Here, as at the Hornet's Nest, the fighting was furious, even as soldiers were showered with pink flowering peach petals. Johnston took a bullet that severed his femoral artery, located behind the knee. The Rebel commander was taken off his horse, removed from the field, and died at about 2:30 that afternoon. He had simply bled to death. There

Ulysses Grant Mexican American War

Caught unaware, Union soldiers camped at Pittsburg Landing were quickly organized into a strong defensive line under the leadership of Union general Ulysses S. Grant. A well-known veteran of the Mexican-American War, Grant was actively involved in the battle and bravely ventured out to the front line to fight alongside his troops (above).

Caught unaware, Union soldiers camped at Pittsburg Landing were quickly organized into a strong defensive line under the leadership of Union general Ulysses S. Grant. A well-known veteran of the Mexican-American War, Grant was actively involved in the battle and bravely ventured out to the front line to fight alongside his troops (above).

had been no doctor to see to his wound, since he had just sent one away to go and care for some enemy wounded.

The fighting, of course, went on, and the Confederates pushed forward. At the Hornet's Nest, the fighting remained hard and desperate. Prentiss's line of men was turned back on both flanks, leaving Confederates to attack from three sides. There were 62 Rebel cannons concentrated at that point on the battlefield, "the largest concentration of artillery yet assembled in an American war," notes historian Geoffrey Ward. General Prentiss was finally overwhelmed around 5:30, forcing his surrender, along with 2,200 or so of his men. The Union Army was retreating along its entire line. Grant rushed about, looking for General Wallace and reinforcements. They never came.

Late in the day, around sunset, some of General Buell's regiments reached the banks of the river opposite Pittsburg Landing and were ferried across by steamboat. Grant's forces had taken serious casualties through the day of intense fighting. His effective fighting force had been reduced to about 18,000 men, all formed together in a tight position around Pittsburg Landing. Grant's position was shaky, and he knew it. He had his back to the river, with little room to maneuver, and his forces were tired, battered, and down in number. The Federals positioned themselves for yet another Confederate assault. But it did not appear. General Beauregard, now in command, pulled his forces back, certain he would be able to annihilate his enemy the following morning. He allowed his men to ransack the abandoned Union encampments.


Both armies struggled through a long night, one marked by heavy rains that began around midnight. Thousands of wounded Northerners and Southerners lay together across the miles of battlefield, since no system had yet been developed to organize the removal of the wounded under a flag of truce. Men cried in pain through the night. Lightning flashes revealed that wild hogs were feeding on the bodies of the dead. Some wounded men found water in a muddy hole close to the peach orchard. They died on its banks, their blood spilling into the water. It would be named Bloody Pond.

The Union men still able to fight were in a tight spot. With the river to their backs, they could not evacuate overnight, nor did Grant intend to do so. According to historian Bruce Cat-ton, in his book Grant Moves South, when several of the officers under Grant's command suggested an evacuation across the river before a second day of fighting could take place, Grant was unmoved. He reportedly stated: "Retreat? No. I propose to attack at daylight and whip them." Grant chose to remain in the encampments near Pittsburg Landing, rather than take a cabin in one of the Union steamboats. He could not sleep due to the cries of the wounded men scattered for miles across the day's field of battle. Sherman found him later under a tree in the rain. Historian Geoffrey Ward recalls their simple exchange:

"Well, Grant," Sherman said. "We've had the devil's own day, haven't we?"

"Yes," Grant answered. "Yes. Lick 'em tomorrow."

The Union commander was as confident as he could be concerning the following day, when the battle would resume. Grant ordered an all-night barrage from his gunboats on the Tennessee River against Confederate positions. Throughout the evening, large numbers of Buell's men reached Grant's positions, having finally arrived down the Tennessee River. The men stepped onto the river's banks to a regimental band playing "Dixie." General Wallace's men, who had wasted the day by being lost, also arrived. In all, Grant was reinforced with 27,000 men, including 20,000 of Buell's and Wallace's 7,000. But the key to the next day would not be their number; rather, it was that they were fresh troops, those who were not weary from the previous day's hard fight. Grant intended to launch his own attack on the morning of April 7.

Over in the Confederate encampment, Beauregard was just as confident as Grant about the day of fighting to come. He occupied General Sherman's tent near the Shiloh church, where he would sleep soundly that night. That evening, he sent a telegram to President Davis in Richmond informing him of a great victory in Tennessee, as noted by historian James McPherson: "After a severe battle of ten hours, thanks be to the Almighty, [we] gained a complete victory, driving the enemy from every position." For Beauregard, the following day would simply serve as a clear conclusion of a fight that had only ended early because night came. Of course, Beauregard was unaware of the reinforcements Grant had already received.

One Confederate leader who was not as confident as Beauregard about the next day was cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest. His men scouted Union positions that evening and into the night, watching as steamboats delivered thousands of Buell's men to Pittsburg Landing. When Forrest set out to inform Beauregard of this new piece on the chessboard of battle, he could not find him. Other Southern generals he did meet with did not take his information that seriously.

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